June 26, 2008
The First Lady of Country Music, and the Heroine of Heartbreak. Tammy Wynette sang with a tear in her voice, a classic country wail that perfectly complemented the desperate emotional dramas she sang. But underneath the layers of pain, there was always a strong undercurrent of resilience, and some of the best songs she ever sang and wrote had as much hope for tomorrow as they had sorrow for today.
Wynette was born the only child of a farmer musician and his wife. When she was only nine months old, her father died, and her mother was forced to work wherever she could, leaving her in the care of her grandparents, who had a cotton farm in Mississippi. As a child, she picked cotton alongside the workers in the field, but she dreamed of country stardom. Her escape from the drudgery of her daily life were the musical instruments her father had left behind, which she taught herself to play, and a children’s record player, on which she spun the discs of Skeeter Davis, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.
She married her first husband right before high school graduation, and she did several different jobs before enrolling in beautician school in 1963. She would renew her license every year, long after she was a major star, so she always had something to fall back on. But she was still pursuing her dream to sing, and when her husband didn’t support her dream, she left him, three daughters in tow, determined to make it big.
She started singing in Alabama nightclubs, and caught a break with a performance on the the Birmingham television program The Country Boy Eddie Show in 1965. This led to some gigs with Porter Wagoner, which gave her the nerve she needed to move to Nashville and pursue a recording contract. She auditioned for famed producer Billy Sherrill, who needed a singer for a song he’d been given called “Apartment #9.” Wynette blew him away, and he signed her to Epic Records.
Wynette’s first single release was “Apartment #9,” and it peaked at #44, though its inclusion in her top-selling greatest hits album a few years later would make it one of her most beloved hits. The next single provided her initial breakthrough, the up-tempo romp “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” which featured a sly lyrical reference to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life.” It established Wynette on the radio, peaking at #3, a good start for a female country singer. But over the next few years, Wynette would demolish all expectations held of female artists, dominating the charts with a string of #1 hits unseen before by any woman in country music history.
Beginning in 1967, with her chart-topping duet with David Houston, “My Elusive Dreams,” Wynette released a string of classic hit singles that captured the domestic experience in gritty detail. The heartbreaking “I Don’t Wanna Play House” won her a Grammy, and she followed it with another #1 single, “Take Me To Your World.” Then, in 1968, she released two consecutive singles that would be the defining records of her career.
The first was co-written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, a ballad from the perspective of a guilt-ridden mother of a young boy who doesn’t know his parents are breaking up. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” helped make her a major star, and she returned to the same theme with later hits like “Bedtime Story” and “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”
Needing a follow-up to that hit, Wynette and Sherrill quickly wrote a song in the fifteen minutes before a scheduled recording session. It ended up Wynette’s first single as a writer, and she would later say that she spent fifteen minutes writing it and the rest of her life defending it. “Stand By Your Man” became her signature song, winning her a second Grammy and crossing over to the pop chart. But it was also blasted by members of the burgeoning feminist movement, who saw it as something of a doormat song, even though the lyric doesn’t support that characterization. To be fair, her next single, “Singing My Song”, could have given them a lot more material to work with, but that was such an obvious attempt to recreate the success of “Stand By Your Man” that Wynette deserves a free pass on that one.
The one-two punch of “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Stand By Your Man” led to Wynette dominating at the CMA Awards, winning three consecutive Female Vocalist trophies beginning in 1968. Over the next few years, she would rack up an impressive run of hits, including 21 #1 singles over a ten-year period, a record that would not be matched until Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire many years later.
Many of her hits were from her own pen, including some of her very best, particularly the 1976 classic “‘Til I Can Make it On My Own,” which was later a hit again by Kenny Rogers & Dottie West. She also penned the nakedly confessional “Another Lonely Song,” which found her talking herself out of an affair while talking to God. She also co-wrote the last big hit she had with George Jones, “Two Story House,” which nearly topped the charts in 1980.
It was just one of the many hits that they had together, some during the course of their six year marriage and some afterwards. While the duets of Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn were more popular at the time, Jones & Wynette made records that were far more interesting and often tumultuous. Many of them, like “Golden Ring”, “We’re Gonna Hold On” and “Take Me,” rank with the very best of each artist’s solo work, which is no small feat in itself.
Wynette’s personal life was always a source of fascination to the tabloid media, and she documented quite a bit of it in her autobiography Stand By Your Man, which became a television movie in 1981. But her music remained equally compelling, even as the radio hits inevitably dried up. She recorded some of her most challenging material in the late seventies and eighties, with her take on John Prine’s “Unwed Fathers,” her cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Crying in the Rain,” and the power ballad “Talkin’ to Myself Again” worthy of the attention showered on her earlier hits.
As she entered the nineties, her status as a country music icon secured long ago, she surfaced in a surprising place. International house music stars The KLF invited her to sing on a remix of their dance track “Justified and Ancient,” and she agreed, singing trippy lines like “They called me up in Tennessee, they said Tammy, stand by the jam.” She appeared in the music video wearing a crown and leading a parade of dancers in native costumes. Amazingly, the song was a smash, topping the charts in eighteen countries and becoming her biggest hit on the pop charts in America.
Wynette followed the crossover success by collaborating with her contemporaries Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn on the 1993 album Honky Tonk Angels, which became the first gold-selling studio album of her career. Wynette sang lead on the set’s single, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” and wrote and sang one of its high-water marks, “That’s the Way it Should Have Been.” She also released a duet album called Without Walls, where she sang with everyone from Elton John to Sting. In 1995, she reunited with George Jones on the duet album One.
In 1998, Tammy Wynette died in her sleep, and her passing was widely mourned across the country, with CNN broadcasting live from the memorial service. Later that year, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. A tribute album followed, Tammy Wynette…Remembered, which featured country stars like Martina McBride and Rosanne Cash alongside pop stars Melissa Etheridge and Elton John, who sang her signature “Stand By Your Man.” That song has also been recorded over the years by Lyle Lovett, David Allan Coe and the Dixie Chicks.
In 2000, the ACM honored Tammy Wynette with the Pioneer Award, and her catalog continues to sell strongly. Wynette’s legacy as both a singer and a writer is immeasurable, and she remains as celebrated today as she was in her heyday, one of the few women who blazed such a trail that the impact has been felt by every one who’s come along after her.
- “Apartment #9,” 1966
- “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” 1967
- “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” 1967
- “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” 1968
- “Stand By Your Man,” 1968
- “‘Til I Get it Right,” 1972
- “Another Lonely Song,” 1973
- “‘Til I Can Make it On My Own,” 1976
- “Golden Ring” (with George Jones), 1976
- “Justified and Ancient” (with The KLF), 1991
- Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad, 1967
- D-I-V-O-R-C-E, 1968
- Stand By Your Man, 1969
- The Ways to Love a Man, 1969
- Tammy’s Touch, 1970
- ‘Til I Can Make it On My Own, 1976
- Honky Tonk Angels, 1993
- ACM Top Female Vocalist, 1970
- ACM Pioneer Award, 2000
- CMA Female Vocalist, 1968, 1969 & 1970
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“I Don’t Wanna Play House”), 1968
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“Stand By Your Man”), 1970
- Country Music Hall of Fame, 1998